The Foolishness of Crowds
Importing the wiki model of policymaking will mean less democracy, not more. A response to Beth Simone Noveck.
Without a trace of irony, Beth Simone Noveck, a law professor and thus paragon of the professional elite, favorably quotes the George Bernard Shaw adage that “all professions are conspiracies against the laity” [“Wiki-Government,” Issue #7]. Does Shaw really mean to indict all professions? In addition to medical doctors (against whom Shaw ran his own vendetta), that must include civil engineers, librarians, architects, nuclear scientists, high-school teachers, and nanotechnologists. When it comes to politics, would Shaw include the professional bureaucrats who successfully engineered the New Deal programs? Is Shaw saying that self-interested professionals consciously conspire against “ordinary people”? Maybe, maybe not. But Noveck does indeed appear to be straight-faced in her concurrence, particularly since she adds that “nowhere is this more the case than in a democracy.”
Noveck offers a radical solution to what she believes is the problem of professional expertise in a democracy. She calls this “wiki-government,” and it represents the revenge of the laity against the professions. Through open-source technologies like wikis, Noveck’s solution empowers the laity to collectively participate in government. By enabling ordinary citizens to collectivize their wisdom, Noveck says that wiki-government will not only make decision-making more democratic, but also more expert.
There is more than a trace of postmodern epistemological anarchism here, a not-so-implicit rejection of what Noveck calls Max Weber’s “detached and strictly objective expert” who, we are left to assume, can never truly be either detached or objective. And if all human deployment of knowledge is unavoidably biased, then what? Doesn’t that make government–one of the most authoritative purveyors of expert knowledge–a self-evident racket, the ultimate conspiracy?
Noveck’s purportedly progressive vision of twenty-first century American government revolves around the latest cult of the crowd–a communitarian romanticism representing the second coming of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Rousseau 2.0, in the binary geek-speak of Silicon Valley). Like the proto-totalitarian Rousseau, Noveck thinks that groups of people are both politically wiser and braver than individuals: “Speaking truth to power is easiest to do–and more accurate–when spoken not as an individual but as a group,” she argues. But Noveck does not cite historical examples of groups speaking “truth to power,” and there are countless examples–from the bloody excesses of the French Revolutionary crowd to the lynch mob–that prove just the opposite. In fact, when it comes to truth telling, it normally has been individuals–Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, Vaclav Havel, Anna Politkovskaya, Aung San Suu Kyi–who have uttered the first words against power. The crowd, if ever, generally appears later, after the initial truth-telling.
And, in America, that crowd often has the dissonant cadence of a mob. Switch on the AM radio dial and you can hear this crowd baying for blood on call-in shows and ranting the same anti-elitist sentiment as Noveck. No doubt some of them even quote Shaw as they bloviate about how government is a self-evident racket, the ultimate conspiracy. The critical issue, to which Noveck and the digital populists don’t face up, is that more political participation neither means better democracy, nor does it guarantee more efficient government. In fact, it often results in the reverse: Mob rule is mob rule, whether it is electromagnetically broadcasted on the wireless or digitally streamed from the Web.
I am not sure whether Noveck has been tuning in to talk radio, but she has certainly been spending a lot of time the Internet. It is here that she has discovered the cure to the professional “conspiracy against the laity.” Her holy grail is called “open-source technology,” such as “wikis,” which subvert all traditional hierarchies by allowing everyone, irrespective of their qualifications, to participate in knowledge-creation.
It’s probably no coincidence that open-source technology was invented in California’s Silicon Valley; these knowledge-sharing tools having all the lawless charm of the gold-rush American West. Like mid-nineteenth-century California, the only rule about wikis is that they have no rules: Nobody is in charge of determining who can and can’t author a wiki, anyone can become a contributor, anyone can edit the work of another writer, and anyone can come along and (re)edit the original edit. This is, of course, technology created by and designed for libertarians. The traditional hierarchies of knowledge communities–from professional subject experts to professional editors to professional fact-checkers–are made redundant. On Wikipedia, the established expert and the professional elite are no more authoritative or believable than the laity. As Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s Ayn Rand-worshipping founder, openly boasts, he has no more faith in the knowledge of a Harvard professor than in a high-school kid. And, on Wikipedia, Wales doesn’t need to; both the professor and kid have the same intellectual authority, which is really the same as saying that neither has any authority at all. Open-source technology, in other words, is a conspiracy of the laity against professionals.
Wiki-government, then, is about the public storming the Bastille of expertise and citizens seizing the Winter Palace of the professional elite. So what’s wrong with that? After all, no government, particularly the American version of recent years, is error-free. Wouldn’t it be marvelous to have both more experts and more democracy in government?
Of course it would. But applying open-source technology to government won’t do the trick. Noveck’s theory might be seductive, but the practice will actually result in less democracy and less expertise. Her logic is premised on the supposed success of open-source media projects like New Assignment, YouTube, OhMyNews, and Simon & Schuster’s MediaPredict. If open-source digital media projects work, her logic goes, then digital government will also work.
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